Today in 1982: Villeneuve and Pironi’s fatal feud at Ferrari

1982 San Marino Grand Prix flashback

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The 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, 30 years ago today, began with a political row that saw more than half the teams boycott the race.

It ended with a bitter feud between Ferrari team mates Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi – one which had a tragic end.

A turbulent season

Imola was the scene for round four of the 1982 season.

It was holding a world championship race for the third time and the second time under the title of “San Marino Grand Prix”. This was a simple dodge to allow Italy to host two rounds of the world championship – the principality lies 70km south-east of the track.

The year had got off to a bad-tempered start. Drivers went on strike in the opening round at Kyalami in protest at restrictive new terms on their superlicences.

The drivers won the day, and that perhaps played on the minds of several of their team bosses following the events of the next round in Brazil.

There Nelson Piquet won ahead of Keke Rosberg. But on the Monday before the Imola race, the FIA Sporting Tribunal excluded both and handed the win to Alain Prost, who had finished third.

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The pair – Piquet driving for Brabham, Rosberg for Williams – were thrown out following a protest by Ferrari and Renault. The FIA found both cars had run under the minimum weight limit during the race.

These protested teams – and several more besides – had tried to get around the minimum weight rule by fitting oversized liquid tanks to their cars. These were emptied of fluid when the race started and refilled after the race, before the cars were weighed.

The FIA found the cars were fitted with tanks capable of holding 25-28kg of liquid, mostly water, ostensibly used to cool the brakes. The tribunal deemed that during the race, Piquet and Rosberg’s cars had been at least 10kg under the minimum weight limit.

The practice had been widespread for some time and the authorities had turned a blind eye to it. In Spain the previous year Brabham were found to be using an unnecessarily large oil reservoir to get their car up to the minimum weight limit – but the scrutineers were leant on to overlook the team’s circumnavigation of the rules.

The FIA’s double-whammy decision to retroactively change the rules and disqualify both drivers sent a shockwave through the sport along long-established fault lines.

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The FOCA boycott

The teams which made most use of the weight limit dodge were the Cosworth-powered outfits, who were mostly aligned to the Formula One Constructors’ Association headed by Brabham owner Bernie Ecclestone. They did so to reduce the performance deficit to their rivals equipped with more powerful – but heavy – turbocharged engines.

FOCA pledged to boycott the following race at Imola in protest. As a result, fewer than half of the cars entered for the race turned up.

The resolve among the FOCA teams was surprisingly strong. Even McLaren, whose driver John Watson had been promoted to second in Brazil despite also running underweight, sided with the boycotters.

One team which broke ranks was Tyrrell. They had been without major sponsorship the previous year, and became so strapped for cash several employees were temporarily made redundant and the team ran a skeleton staff for a few weeks.

For 1982, Ken Tyrrell had landed backing from two major Italian companies: Candy (transferring their allegiance from Toleman) and Imola Ceramica – the latter a tile manufacturer based near the circuit. Not willing to risk losing their funding, Tyrrell sent his team to Italy while insisting he supported FOCA.

In total, 17 entries were withdrawn. They included a pair of cars each from Brabham, Williams, McLaren, Lotus and March. Neither of the Arrows were present, despite their cars carrying the sponsorship of local company Ceramica Ragno. The single entries of Ensign, Fittipaldi and Theodore were also absent.

Ligier prevaricated, putting out a press release saying their new JS19s weren’t ready to race. But their transporters were reportedly seen heading back to France on the day before practice, suggesting an 11th-hour change of mind had taken place somewhere.

That left a miserable entry of just 14 cars. But it included full representation from the one team most people in Italy came to see – Ferrari.

They were joined by fellow turbo users Renault and Toleman. There were rumours Ferrari and Renault would field third cars to bolster the grid, but nothing came of it.

Alfa Romeo sent their V12-engined cars. In addition to Tyrrell, the other Cosworth users to cross the picket line were ATS and Osella.

The change to the Brazilian Grand Prix result meant that Prost led the championship, followed by four drivers who were not racing at Imola: Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, John Watson and Carlos Reutemann.

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Crashes in practice

The dangerous levels of downforce produced by the 1982 cars was plain to see in practice at Imola. ‘Ground effect’ aerodynamics generated huge grip in the corners but the massive loads placed on suspension often caused breakages.

Such an accident befell Derek Warwick. Plunging down the hill to the left-hander at Rivazza, the front-left suspension collapsed on his Toleman. Warwick managed to avoid hitting anything, and the shaken driver dragged his car back to the pits.

Ferrari’s Didier Pironi also crashed heavily on Friday and was at a loss to explain the accident, suspecting a tyre or suspension failure. It was the second big crash of the season for the French driver, who had shunted at Paul Ricard prior to the Brazilian Grand Prix.

It wasn’t just the cars that took a pounding from the G-forces – the track did too. Despite just 14 cars running in practice the track began to break up – a situation which would surely have been worse had the planned 31 entries been present.

ATS’s participation in the weekend was badly hampered by the fact that they procured their Avon tyres through Ecclestone’s International Race Tyre Services company, which packed up and went home on Thursday after the boycott was announced.

They started practice running cross-ply Avons at the front of the car and radial Pirellis at the rear, a combination which their poor drivers struggled to make much use of. For race day they were able to get hold of some used Avons from the previous races.

1982 San Marino Grand Prix grid

Unsurprisingly the turbo cars claimed the front two rows, the Renaults ahead of the Ferraris. Michele Alboreto in the Tyrrell was 1.2s off the slowest of them and 3.5s off the pole position time.

In light of which, one has to wonder whether FOCA would have made their protest had the track been better suited to their cars.

Row 11. Rene Arnoux 1’29.765
2. Alain Prost 1’30.249
Row 23. Gilles Villeneuve 1’30.717
4. Didier Pironi 1’32.020
Row 35. Michele Alboreto 1’33.209
6. Bruno Giacomelli 1’33.230
Alfa Romeo
Row 47. Cesaris 1’33.397
Alfa Romeo
8. Derek Warwick 1’33.503
Row 59. Jean-Pierre Jarier 1’34.336
10. Teo Fabi 1’34.647
Row 611. Brian Henton 1’35.262
12. Manfred Winkelhock 1’35.790
Row 713. Riccardo Paletti 1’36.228
14. Eliseo Salazar 1’36.434

More retirements

On the morning of the race Tyrrell petitioned the stewards to rule the turbo cars illegal, insisting their engines used turbines which were forbidden by the rules. Unsurprisingly, his protest was thrown out. But it had been more than just a symbolic gesture – several teams continued to protest the turbos’ legality in the coming months.

Clearly the promoters could not stand to lose any more cars. As it was just a dozen of them took the start.

The second Tyrrell of Brian Henton was out before the race had even begun. Henton had taken the place of Slim Borgudd (formerly a drummer for pop group Abba), and was making his seventh F1 start for his sixth different team. Unfortunately, his transmission failed on the grid.

Meanwhile Warwick’s electrics died on the warm-up lap, a poor reward for his fright in practice.

By lap nine there were just nine cars left. Andrea De Cesaris’s fuel pump failed, Prost’s engine threw a piston and Riccardo Paletti – who had made his first start in the Osella – went out with broken suspension. The prospect of no cars finishing the race began to look like a serious possibility.

Pironi steals victory

But the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix would come to be remembered more for what happened next than the political wrangling that preceded it.

At the front of the field there was a surprising amount of dicing for position – rather more than there had been in the preceding races, prompting claims the drivers had arranged to put on a show.

Villeneuve took the lead off Rene Arnoux on lap 27. Four laps later Arnoux and Pironi slipstreamed past him on the run to Tosa. On lap 41, Villeneuve got down the inside of Pironi once more at Tosa, re-taking second place.

He was still there when smoke from the back of the Renault turned into orange flames and Arnoux pulled off. That handed the lead to Villeneuve, and Ferrari held out a pit sign instructing their drivers to “slow”.

Exactly what was intended by this message is something that has been debated for 30 years. What is not in doubt is that Villeneuve took it to mean the pair should hold their positions and finish in that order. Either Pironi did not see it that way – or chose not to.

Concerned about fuel use by the thirsty Ferrari turbo on a track where fuel was marginal, Villeneuve backed off. He completed lap 45 in 1’36.5.

But on the next lap he ran wide at the exit of Rivazza. Pironi took his chance to grab the lead, and then reeled off a pair of 1’35s.

Villeneuve responded, and claimed the lead back on lap 49, passing Pironi as they headed into Piratella. Again he backed off – a pair of 1’37s and even a 1’38 – and again Pironi came past, taking Villeneuve on the run to Tamburello before firing off a sequence of 1’35s.

Now Pironi was defending hard at Tosa, carefully covering the inside on lap 58. But on the penultimate tour he left the door open – and Villeneuve dived through, seemingly to clinch the win.

“Even at that stage I thought he was being honest, obeying the original pit signal,” said Villeneuve afterwards. He backed off around the rest of the lap, crossing the line with a 1’37.020.

But as they approached Tosa for the final time, Pironi dived down the inside and passed him for good. “It never entered my head to cover the line,” said Villeneuve. “Stupid, wasn’t I?”

After the chequered flag came out, the crowd broke onto the track to celebrate with their Ferrari heroes. Pironi took his helmet off on the slowing down lap to receive their applause.

The jubilant scenes contrasted with Villeneuve’s dark mood on the podium. His demeanour did not improve when engineer Marco Piccinini told the press his car had an engine problem – which Villeneuve strenuously denied.

To his mind Pironi had stolen the victory from him. Villeneuve was in his sixth year with Ferrari and believed he understood what a ‘slow’ sign meant – he had sat behind Jody Scheckter at Monza three years earlier for that reason, allowing his team mate to win a world championship that could have been his.

“You get a ‘slow’ sign and it means ‘hold position’,” he said. “That has been the case ever since I have been there.” Pironi denied there had been any team orders.

1982 San Marino Grand Prix result

128Didier PironiFerrari601:36’38.887
227Gilles VilleneuveFerrari60+0.3660.366
33Michele AlboretoTyrrell-Ford60+67.6841’07.684
431Jean-Pierre JarierOsella-Ford59+1 lap1 Lap
510Eliseo SalazarATS-Ford57+3 laps3 Laps
Not classified
9Manfred WinkelhockATS-Ford54Disqualified
36Teo FabiToleman-Hart52Not classified
16Rene ArnouxRenault44Turbo
23Bruno GiacomelliAlfa Romeo24Engine
32Riccardo PalettiOsella-Ford7Suspension
15Alain ProstRenault6Engine
22Andrea de CesarisAlfa Romeo4Electrical
4Brian HentonTyrrell-Ford0Transmission
35Derek WarwickToleman-Hart0Did not start

After the Ferraris it took over a minute for the only other car on the lead lap to appear – Alboreto’s Tyrrell, giving the young Italian his first podium finish.

Jean-Pierre Jarier’s Osella was a lapped fourth and Eliseo Salazar came in three laps down for ATS in fifth place on his old tyres.

No-one claimed the final point for sixth place: Teo Fabi was still circulating in his Toleman, but a long pit stop had left him eight laps down so he wasn’t classified – there went Toleman’s chance of their first F1 point. The second ATS of Manfred Winkelhock would have taken sixth, but he was disqualified for being underweight.

The political aftermath

Viewed from the perspective of 30 years later, the events of the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix had far-reaching consequences, some less obvious than others.

It’s hard to view FOCA’s boycott as anything other than a failure. Their attempts to persuade TV broadcasters the race would be cancelled fell on deaf ears.

Organisers said 100,000 attended the race, those present suggested it was closer to 75,000. Either way it was still more than enough to demonstrate the boycott had not affected the race’s popularity.

The lessons Bernie Ecclestone took away from that day were surely instructive for his future dealings.

Not least of which was the reminder that to win any political argument in F1, you must have Ferrari on-side. His numerous financial sweeteners to the team over the years illustrate the importance of that message was not lost on him.

Whether it has been healthy for the sport for one team to have so much political power is another debate entirely.

The human cost

The consequences of the race in human terms were far greater. Villeneuve swore never to speak to Pironi again, and it seems he never did. He was killed during qualifying for the following race, trying to find another tenth of a second to beat his team mate’s time.

Pironi has long been seen as the villain of this particular piece. But, almost 25 years after his own death, perhaps we should view less harshly the actions of a man who was doing what F1 drivers are born and bred to do – win races.

This is not to pretend his actions were anything less than the duplicitous work of a driver who couldn’t beat his team mate in a straight fight on the day. But Pironi could not possibly have imagined the appalling consequences that lay in store at Zolder less than two weeks later.

Long before the season’s end, at which point a team might reasonably have been expected to impose a finishing order to favour their leading driver, Pironi took advantage of an opportunity to score his first win for two years.

In the races that followed, Pironi was a haunted man. He took the lead of the world championship, but suffered career-ending injuries when he crashed in a wet practice session at the Hockenheimring.

He was not the only driver to openly defy his team that year. Three months later at Paul Ricard, Arnoux did much the same, refusing to pull over and let Prost win. But there was no tragic coda to that story, and Arnoux has not been reviled the same way Pironi has.

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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40 comments on “Today in 1982: Villeneuve and Pironi’s fatal feud at Ferrari”

  1. Very interesting F1 history. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for a very interesting piece, Keith.

  3. Yeh, a great piece there, Keith.

    One thing – Didn’t Imola use the Variante Bassa (sp?) back then, as well as the final chicane?

  4. this is the video of the great battle (i think what makes it great is gilles fairness)

  5. sorry Keith for the post but when i posted my comment the videos where not loaded into my browser

  6. Keith, Thank yo for writing articles such as these. For a person who started following Formula 1 seriously in 2007, I always rue the fact that I did not even see the Hakikinen – Schumacher battles of the late 90’s. Articles such as these give me such an amazing window into the world of F1 in the past. Cheers !!! (And look forward to more)

    1. @mahavirshah @keithcollantine I’m exactly the same. Rather than just telling us what happened, you tell a story. This was a gripping one at that, thank you!

      It seems the politics are often as complex, if not more, than the formula.

    2. Yes some of us who have been watching the sort for 40+ years have seen great battles in the past. A lot of these when the guys changed gears themselves and didn’t have the fancy gadgets on the cars now. In my eyes they were better drivers that those driving today. Although i still love F1 i don’t think it’s quite so exciting. As Martin Brundle has regularly said “Your granny can drive these cars”

  7. Great story. So many amazing things. But look at those time differences in quali and race…

    1. @tango Yeah the differences in qualy between the turbos and the Cosworths were quite huge especially on power tracks like Imola. But usually the Cosworths(those teams who missed the race, not the backmarkers like ATS) were much closer in the race and more reliable. Despite that, had GV and Pironi completed the whole season Keke would not have taken his championship.

  8. I never really understood why people get on Pironi’s back for “stealing” the win from Villeneuve. Somehow I feel that if it was the other way around, people would have still supported Villeneuve.

    1. @slr There’s no doubt Villeneuve was more popular than Pironi even before this happened. I expect that probably has coloured some people’s views.

      But I think the lap times make it impossible to conclude anything other than Villeneuve was managing the pace of the race in the expectation that Pironi would not pass him. You don’t overtake a car doing 1’35 by lapping in 1’38.

      1. Maybe it was due to the popularity of Gilles but i think when Pironi didn’t respect team order (that’s unusual in Ferrari) all the people think that he stole the win because even Gilles himself respected team orders before;

    2. Part of the reason has to be – and I think Gilles pointed this out after at the time – that Villeneuve had always previously respected Ferrari team orders, even when it cost him a shot at the WDC.

      The Ferraris of Jody Scheckter and Villeneuve were running 1-2 at the 1979 Italian GP when the team used a similar “hold station” order. Gilles subsquently said words to the effect that he thought he could have passed Scheckter at any time and won the race, but he chose to follow team orders. I think (but would have had to check) that the points swing would have been just enough to have made Villeneuve champion. That was the thing about Gilles, there was no guile – he wouldn’t have ignored team orders to steal a win from Pironi. Whereas Pironi was pretty cold and calculating, by all accounts.

      Arnoux’s defiance of team orders was differently perceived, partly because he was much more popular than Prost in France at the time but also because he was leading Prost when the team order came. The other notable team orders incident from around that time was Carlos Reutemann ignoring orders from Williams to let Alan Jones past to win the 1981 Brazilian GP – like Arnoux, Reutemann was leading and couldn’t bring himself to honour what he’d previously agreed to do.

      That’s got to be the key difference – Arnoux and Reutemann both refused to honour team orders to concede a victory both had earnt on merit, Pironi went against orders to steal a victory that should never have been his. While I can just about see Gilles doing the former (although I don’t think he ever did), he definitely wouldn’t have done the latter.

      1. Well I think the whole thing is silly, Pironi found an oppotunity to win and took it. No one complained when Webber tried to disobey Red Bull’s team orders at Silverstone last year.

        1. Different time, different context, different values.

          Most people’s perception of team orders are substantially negative, strongly coloured by the events of Austria 2002, Singapore 2008 and Germany 2010 have done much to create that perception. As you say, no one much cared that Webber disobeyed team orders to hold station at Silverstone last year. I doubt very many people would have objected to Massa pretending he couldn’t hear Rob Smedley at Hockenheim (“Fernando is faster than who?”) the year before that. In the present day, team orders are associated with manipulating races and systematically favouring one driver over his supposedly equal team mate.

          But 1982 was closer in both time and spirit to the events of 1956, when Peter Collins surrendered his car (and very likely the WDC) to his team leader, Fangio – often upheld as a prime example of sportsmanship. Team orders of the “hold station” type were a device that teams, especially Ferrari, had been using for considerable time and drivers were expected to honour them. Villeneuve certainly did, and he expected his team mate to do likewise – hence his feeling that Pironi had betrayed him. Pironi can’t have known what would happen in Zolder, so can’t be blamed for Villeneuve’s death, but Pironi knew exactly what he was doing in flouting team orders to hold station.

        2. @slr Not everyone dislikes Pironi because he disobeyed team orders. I dislike him because what he did to Gilles was the equivalent of a stab in the back after the fight has ended. Gilles was faster in qualy, faster in the race and no one had any doubt that if Gilles was pushing Pironi would never stand a chance to attack him let alone pass. The only reason Gillles didn’t push was that he believed Pironi was not going to disobey the team order. So to do what he did was not a sign of a driver who’s doing everything to win, rather it was just a sign of a bad person. And he did it to Gilles who was universally respected in the paddock as being always honest which aggravated the mis-deed.

          1. Someone far away
            8th May 2012, 22:02

            In comparison, Gilles walked over Pironi both in 1981 and 1982. He separated himself from Pironi by lapping nearly one and a half second faster in qualifying – with the same car at this Imola event.
            There is one story about Villeneuve’s integrity. At the beginning of 1982, when Pironi posted some bad testing times, Gilles discretely called up journalists and asked them not be harsh on Pironi.
            And just how Pironi returned that favor? By misusing Gilles’ confidence to steal the win from him. That makes people with sense of justice very angry. One more thing; why nobody remembers the anniversaries of Pironi’s death? I never seen one, neither you. Because he was not nearly as worthy sportsman as Gilles. They are separated by many miles in between.

  9. It’s shame two very talented drivers ended their relationship and…career and life in bad form. I don’t think it’s fair to blame Pironi but unless there had been this, both should have enjoyed much better career ahead…

  10. Great article, woke up this morning looking forward to it (US-East timezone :D)

    I enjoyed particularly the setting of the stage of that year. Do you have the GP International from that year? I wonder what the coverage of these circumstances was at the time.

    Most of all, I appreciate the converse perspective – Pironi was ignoring what were likely clear team orders but Villeneuve did make a few mistakes, and lapped quite slow – perhaps giving Pironi that irrefusable sniff of victory notwithstanding the pit board.

    1. @d3v0 No I don’t – I haven’t got any GP Internationals, actually, and before I buy any I really need to buy a house with a bit more space!

      1. @Keithcollantine

        Indeed, theyres about 100 of them, and they arent cheap!

  11. Excellent article. Thanks for posting it.

  12. Good article, more of the same please

  13. The story is about number one and number two drivers and the failing of that respect. It was a different time in a different place. Trying to compare it to what is going on today driver roles is nonsense.

    One has to understand the whole story leading up to this moment to get the full meaning of what Pironi did and why the results became the tragedy that it was.

    A brotherhood of respect and position within a team was ignored and as written became the focal point of the Zolder mess that robbed Formula One of perhaps the greatest driver.

    So many years later and those feelings of frustration over the sum of this disaster are still there. Sorry to say well written Keith…

  14. One reason why I think Villeneuve was right: Pironi wasn’t asked to let him trough, he was already behind, and he struggled to pass Villeneuve although he was clearly going slower. Had Villeneuve not slowed down I think he’d have won. Also, Villeneuve always re-took the place back fom his team mate, and lost out only because he was too kind to think of what Pironi was doing. The team order, if that’s what it was, was not expressed clearly, so more than it being Pironi ignoring an unfair decision by the team it was more Pironi betraying Villeneuve, who was no longer racing because he had been told not to.

  15. sid_prasher (@)
    25th April 2012, 17:23

    Wonderful article Keith…really enjoyed reading it.
    I wonder if Ferrari held out other pit signs to indicate that what Pironi was doing was not according to plan. Villeneuve could have so easily pulled so far ahead…but I guess he never doubted the intentions of his team mate…
    Another thing i love about the video is how the cars are able to take different lines and run so close to each other…neither of which is possible in the current setup.

  16. Great article! The quality of the video on the grid is surprisingly crisp.

    1. @ogkush7 Yes, I’m not sure what’s the story behind that first video clip, which appears to be Japanese, but the quality’s decent for the time.

  17. I started watching formula 1 seriously since 2008. The more i watch and learn about this sport i feel that i have been so unfortunate to miss out on the glorious historical moments and the great drivers in this sport. Nevertheless articles like this just make me love this sport more and more… so keep it coming…

  18. Great article.
    Only fourteen starters and sad to think that five of them (Villeneuve, Pironi, Alboreto, Paletti and Winkelhock) all died in racing competitions.

    1. Dear me that never occurred as I was writing this. How sad.

  19. And I agree that people tend to be too harsh on Pironi. It always bugs me that Nigel Roebuck (with whom I usually agree) always brings up Rosberg’s remark he made to the effect that without Pironi Villeneuve ‘would still be here’, as if to suggest that Pironi was somehow complicit in Villeneuve’s demise when really all he was guilty of was being arrogant and impulsively diving into a gap that opened on the last lap of a race. It was only later circumstances that made him look the villain, without them the Imola affair would be a footnote.

  20. fantastic article Keith.. gives some of us newbies a little peak in the history of F1…

  21. Thanks for the positive feedback everyone!

  22. Great article. I had no idea about all the political stories before that race.

  23. A really nice article Keith, thanks

  24. The story doesn’t even stop there. Didier died in 86 in a speed boat accident at a race off the Isle Of Wight, which also killed Bernard Giroux (the then F1 commentator on TF1) and Jean-Claude Guenard (a distant relative of mine and then Ligier mechanic). Pironi’s wife was pregnant then and she called her twins Didier and Gilles.

  25. The last few paragraphs got me thinking – I’ve only ever read about this from Villeneuve’s side of the story, mostly as related by Nigel Roebuck. Do any interviews with Pironi exist? I’d love to know what he was thinking during the Imola race, how he was affected by events that followed – not only Villeneuve’s death and also Paletti’s (in a collision with Pironi’s stalled car). Sid Watkins observed he was becoming more highly-strung that summer, but any words from the man himself?

    1. @bullfrog Not half as much as there is from Villeneuve. If anyone’s found a good one I’d love to read it.

      I have got a biography of Pironi – which is terrible, hagiographic from start to finish – which quotes Pironi saying he had no clause in his contract stating he had to finish second and that if they’d wanted Villeneuve to win the order would have been more explicit. However there’s no indication when or where the quote is from.

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